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Trends in Scientific Knowledge, Education, and Religion

Educational attainment in America has increased, and religiosity has decreased over the past two and a half decades, but knowledge of many standard scientific facts has changed relatively little, if at all.

Knowledge of elementary scientific facts is all too sparse among American adults. A quarter of Americans remain unaware of the fundamental Copernican reality that the Earth rotates around the sun (as opposed to the sun rotating around the Earth). Of those who have that most basic knowledge, a quarter don’t know the Earth’s circumnavigation takes a year (as opposed to a day or a month). A third of Americans believe that astrology is at least partly scientific. More than half don’t accept the fact that humans evolved from earlier species of animals, and 59 percent don’t believe the universe started with a big bang. Unfortunately, ignorance of many such scientific facts has not been substantially changing over the past few decades (also see National Science Board 2014; Frazier 2014).

Figure 1: Distribution of educational attainment by year

But while scientific knowledge has often changed at most only slowly, noticeable changes have taken place in educational attainment and religiosity. In particular, educational attainment has increased while traditional religious beliefs and practices have decreased.

Trends in Educational Attainment

Competition for admission to prestigious colleges is much stiffer than it was decades ago. The reason is simple demographics; in 1972, 12 percent of the U.S. population twenty-five and older had finished college. By 2014, that percentage had risen to 31 percent, and the size of the U.S. population had increased by 50 percent. In contrast, the number of slots at prestigious colleges (unlike tuition) had not kept pace: hence there is substantially greater competition for college enrollment in recent years. The increase in educational attainment is shown, in greater detail, in Figure 1.2 The solid line in that figure shows that the percentage of those who have less than a high school education plummeted from 42 percent in 1972 to 12 percent in 2014. Correspondingly, the percentage of adults who had graduate degrees tripled from 3.7 percent to 11.2 percent. The point is there have been substantial shifts toward higher educational degrees since the early 1970s.

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About Skeptical Inquirer

The ‘Lie Detector’ Test Revisited: A Great Example of Junk Science Trends in Scientific Knowledge, Education, and Religion The Science of Meaning Mistaken Memories of Vampires: Pseudohistories and much more.